Sunday, 24 April 2016

Common Word Confusions

There are plenty of words that confuse writers – some are obvious, some less so – but they’re part of a large group of words that make us stumble from time to time, and that’s because none of us is perfect. 
There are plenty of reasons why confusions arise. Some are caused by the English language having more than one meaning for a word – like chord and cord, while others cause hesitation because they sound and look the same but have different meanings. Writers just have to learn the differences and be able to spot them when editing.
It’s or Its
Let’s start with the most obvious – It’s versus its.  There is a very simple way to differentiate between the two. One is a contraction of ‘it is’ and the other is a possessive pronoun (belonging to or of), for example:
It’s a lovely day. (Contraction of it is a lovely day.)
The dog wagged its tail. (Possessive pronoun – the tail belongs to the dog).
Lie or Lay
You can lie down or tell a lie and you can lay (an object) down. These types of verbs confuse writers because often they mix lie and lay, depending whether they are writing in the past or present tense.
Lay and lie are verbs used in the present tense. The thing to remember about ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires an object, but ‘lie’ does not. It does not require a direct object, therefore we don’t actually lay down, we lie down.  We don’t lie down a book on the table; we lay down a book on the table. So, for example:
I think I might lie down.
There is no object associated with the verb, so the correct use is ‘lie’. In the present tense, the word ‘lay’ means to put something (an object) down, for example:
I will lay the weapon on the table.
In this case, the object of the sentence is the weapon, which the character lays on the table. So far, so straightforward...
If you are writing in the past tense, however, then ‘lie’ becomes ‘lay’, for example:
He lay down and slept.
I lay awake.
And this is where writers come unstuck - the past tense of ‘lay’ becomes ‘laid’, for example:
He laid down the weapon.
She laid down the rules for them.
It’s also worth remembering that ‘laid’ is also the past participle of ‘lay’, and ‘lain’ is the past participle of lie, for example:
He had laid down the weapon.
She had lain down yesterday morning.
And of course, one last thing to note is ‘laid’ is often confused with the act of reclining. ‘He laid back’, for instance, is incorrect. It should be ‘He lay back.’ (Past tense of lie).
It’s understandable why ‘Lie’ and ‘Lay’ cause no end of confusion, but writers should try to learn the differences.
Sat or Sitting
This is another one that catches a lot of writers out and drives plenty of us crazy. But again, it’s all to do with tenses and sentence constructions.  
Writers often write something like this: ‘She was sat at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’
It looks okay, but ‘sat’ in this case is the past participle of the verb sit. While it might look fine to most people, grammatically it is incorrect. The correct form should be, ‘She was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’ And that’s because it shows the past continuous tense – in other words, in this example the act of sitting is a continuous action. More examples of past continuous tense:
She was sitting at her desk when the phone rang.
She was sitting by the bar when he walked in.
The simple past tense version of the bus stop example would be ‘She sat down and waited for the bus.’ This denotes a completed action, not a continuous one. More examples:
He sat down beside her.
She sat at the bar.
Accept or Except
This one fools writers because although they sound the same, they actually have different meanings.
The word ‘Accept’, which is a verb, has many different meanings, for instance it means to receive something, admit to something or consent to something, for example:
I accept your invitation.
He accepted the gift.
I accept I did wrong. I accept your position.
‘Except’, on the other hand has different meanings, as well as different functions. It can mean apart from, with the exception of or excluding, and it can be used as a conjunction or a preposition, for example:
It went well, except for the mishap with the broom.
The cars were all there, except mine.
She had everything except the passport.
Again, it’s all about learning about the differences between these words and knowing which one to correctly choose for your narrative.
Affect or Effect
They sound the same and with the exception of one letter, they look the same, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The word ‘Affect’ is a verb.  It means to change or influence something, to have an effect on something, usually emotionally, for example:
The loss of the house affected her badly.
He was affected after losing the game.
Effect, on the other hand is both a noun and a verb and it means to cause something to happen or as a result or consequence.
The new policies won’t effect change.
The freshly ground coffee had a positive effect on his mood.
There’s a reason why these two words are high up on the confusion list. The similarity they share fools writers into thinking they’ve chosen the correct word, when in fact they have used the wrong one. Again, it’s important to learn the differences and meanings.
If in doubt, consult a grammar book.
I’ve deliberately left out the top two words that confuse writers – That and Which – because there is so much to explain and these deserve an entire post dedicated to it...

Next week: Which or That – Does it matter?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Focusing on Small Details Can Count

When we think about detail, we tend to think big and bold, and the lush, beautiful descriptions that teem with colour and visual prompts; the kind of thing that should fill a novel, but while these details help make a story, it’s often the smaller details that give it that extra dimension. That’s because sometimes we notice smaller details more than we do huge detail. It may be that our brains are wired to notice these thing.
Writing is no different – minute details can add to the narrative in a subtle way which still enhances the story.
So what kinds of detail make a difference?
The devil really is in the detail. How you create that detail is up to you, but the effect you can create with it is the key to good fiction, because the correct balance of detail – from the biggest detail to the smallest, goes a long way to help make the story memorable rather than forgettable.
Many writers forget the small detail, simply because they assume small details don’t matter, but in the grand scheme of things, they actually do matter. The small details do more than highlight a splinter of information that the reader might otherwise overlook, they actually have many functions, because unlike huge swathes of detail, we use the small details to provoke the reader’s senses – the olfactory, auditory, gustatory, kinaesthetic and the visual.
The sense of smell – although in reality the reader cannot possibly smell anything in written a book, small details within the description allow their senses to imagine it. So the strong earthy aroma of coffee from a cafĂ©, the sweetness of honeysuckle on the breeze or the hint of freshly cut grass – they all help the reader visualise the scene. Not only that, but olfactory details takes them from the ordinary into the extraordinary; it creates a sense of atmosphere and mood and nostalgia, because the one thing we all know is true - imagining certain smells can evoke different memories, especially ones from our childhood.
If you can evoke these moods and feelings within your reader, you also create a connection, a sense of immediacy.
Again, when reading, the reader can’t physically hear anything other the words in their mind, so it’s up to the writer to help the reader hear all that is going on, and in some scenes small details can go a long way. For instance, the constant drip of a tap in the distance can create atmosphere. Or what about the gentle hum of rain on a roof? What mood could it create? The rustle of leaves. The sound of someone breathing...or whispers.
They’re all small details on their own which can create greater detail in context to the entire scene. The greater the detail in this sense, the greater the reaction you invoke in your reader.
Food is one of those things writers tend to forget about – completely. They forget that their protagonist hasn’t eaten for days on end in the novel, or they forget that the protagonist is superhuman and doesn’t actually need food (or the bathroom, for that matter). How many of your characters go through life changing events and yet never stop to actually eat anything or go to the bathroom?
Of course, a scene doesn’t always require that the character is eating to describe different scents, but small sensory details that hint at aromas can help build a scene for the reader.
Gustatory details can be something as simple as describing the sweetness of sugar on a pancake, or the sour taste of medicine, or maybe the tingling freshness of mint. And surprisingly, gustatory detail can also evoke nostalgic memories for readers.
Kinaesthetic refers to the physical – the sense of touch, what the character feels when he touches something.  Not only that but it also refers to external stimulation such as the heat of the sun on the face, the feeling of a fly on the hand, the feel of water around the body when we’re swimming.
This type of detail is especially effective when in character POV, where the reader is privy to the main character’s thoughts and feelings, so the writer can explore the feel of someone else’s skin in an intimate scene for example, or the feel of cool raindrops during a stormy scene. Or perhaps it could describe the fierceness of the sun’s heat in desolate landscape.
Little details like this add the realism of your scenes, because the reader will know what these sensations feel like and they will attribute a memory to it, this creating that all important connection and sense of immediacy.
The most obvious detail that writers use is the visual. There are so many details that can evoke a huge range of imagery for the reader that the visual encompasses so many things, because the visual is virtually all description.
But it’s the detail that counts. Small details can sometimes be symbolic, and symbolism plays an important role in writing. That detail could anything, like a colour, or a certain flower. Perhaps it’s starkness of a landscape, or the darkness of an abandoned building. It can be absolutely anything.
Details create more than background information. They can provide the reader with sensory snippets which, in turn, can create a virtual landscape in the reader’s mind.  
The beauty of such details is that you don’t have to overdo them – not every scene requires pages of luscious and rich description.  It’s all about subtlety. Let the details stand out in smaller scenes; make the reader notice certain things, make them think, make them wonder, but above all, make them visualise.

Next week: Common word confusions

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Art of Captivating First Lines

Do you really need to have captivating first lines? The simple answer to that is there are no rules that say you have to, but the reason writers look for captivating first lines is not only to grab the reader’s attention, but also to maintain it.

Great opening lines can do that because they have the power to lure and entice the reader, to spark their imagination, to compel them and intrigue them. It makes them want to read the whole story, not just the opening line.

Stephen King said of them: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story”.

There are plenty of writers who ignore the concept of a captivating first line and instead launch into lots of unnecessary narrative (info dump) or they overload with backstory in the belief the reader needs all this information to understand what the story is about, but the opposite is true. Less is more.

So what makes a captivating first line?

It’s one that effortlessly leads your reader into the story, one that evokes imagery and mood and sets the tone. After all, the job of the opening line is to capture your reader’s attention and keep it so that they read the entire book. More importantly, it’s the proceeding sentences and paragraphs that really count – the unfolding story thereafter.

How do they work?

They work by drawing the reader into the fictional world you’ve created, they act as a lure, a bait, they tempt and tease so that they have to know more about this fictional world and the people that inhabit it because readers just love to read about interesting, unique characters; people we would either love to be, or be with.

Writers use these captivating first lines not only to hook the reader, but to establish the voice of the novel. They set the tone by hinting at something bad that will happen or has happened, and of course, they provoke and illicit emotions from us.

Many first lines raise questions that, as a reader, you desperately want to find the answer to. Some of the opening lines of well known novels have achieved this:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, George Orwell.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” - The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

“I bother only with widows.” – Tender Prey, Patricia Roberts.

“They’re out there.” - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer, Willian Gibson.

These first liners intrigue, they catch the reader off guard, they draw the reader in to want to know more, but the thing about first lines is that they can be foreboding, dark, light-hearted, mysterious, emotional, clever, fact anything you want them to be.

If you are looking to try traditional publishing, then it’s even more important to get the opening line to your novel just right, because it has to entice not just any reader, but a potential agent and publisher. It needs to make them sit up and take notice.

Every opening line is different, and all of them fall within the context of the whole story, so the opening should be two-fold – to entice the reader enough to want to read further, and to introduce the story in such a way the opening doesn’t detract from the story, but rather enhances it.

Some writers are vivid with their openings. Some are unflinching. Some are powerful, and when the initial surprise disappears, the story is then firmly established and the reader is hooked. As the writer, you want their attention.

If you want to write a captivating first line, think of the story as whole, think about context. Don’t just write open with a bang which has nothing to do with the story. The opening must connect to the rest of the story. You should ask yourself what kind of opening you want – one that is dynamic (creates mystery, shock, surprise or raises questions) or one that sets the mood and tone and creates a certain atmosphere.

The best way to familiarise yourself with them is to study different opening lines from a range of novels. You’ll find most of them do the following:
  • Set the tone of the story
  • Establish a connection with the reader through mystery or conflict or emotion
  • Raise questions that the reader wants answers to
  • Shock or surprise the reader into knowing more

Some writers spend a lot of time on their opening, while some create an opening line instantly. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you try not to overcomplicate it or overthink it. Most of the best openers are short and simple.

Don’t open with backstory or lots of information, otherwise the reader just won’t be interested and try to avoid prologues – these can be a turn off, unless you can make the opening line of the prologue mesmerising enough to lure the reader.
Remember, there are no rules about this, but logically the opening line should captivate. We want the reader’s attention. We want them to read our stories, and continue reading.
Next week: Why focusing on small details is important